This post is sponsored by the Southwest Montana Tourism, which we are so thankful for. However, our experiences and what we tell you here are exactly what we have told (and will tell) our family and friends!
This past weekend we traveled to Helena in our quest to seek out the best options for outdoor families with young kids. Helena is another great stopping off point on your way to visit the National Parks in Montana and Wyoming.
In case you missed it, be sure to also see our post about Virginia City and Nevada City. There are so many great places to see, making extending a trip a little longer on your way to Yellowstone or Glacier worth it!
To be honest, Helena is much more urban than we are used to. Usually the most people we see are tourists and that’s just for a short window of time. However, the opportunities to get outside and play as a family are WAY more than I realized in the Helena area. No wonder people love it there!
What We Recommend:
Exploration Works/Carousal Rides
This is a super great deal if you buy their new Family Fun Pass. It’s only $25 for up to 4 people (each additional person is $5 and under age 2 is free). You get access to Exploration Works all day and unlimited rides on the carousal. There’s also a fun outdoor area between the two places to let kids get outside a bit and run off some more steam. While we didn’t eat there, there were TONS of people happily eating ice cream and food purchased at the carousal.
Exploration Works is a two-story hands-on science museum for families. While I have been in many much larger museums, the size is decent for the size of Helena. They have a new worldwide exhibit: The Art and Science of Arachnids. The exhibit includes a ton of live spiders from around the world (all safely caged, of course), a huge spider where you can help build their web, a “Tarantula Dance” area and other smaller information areas. Honestly, it’s the life of the museum and worth stopping in to see.
The museum also includes a toddler-friendly play area with a market and climbers. Upstairs, our kids loved their air pipe exhibit, magnets and large pin-impression model (see photo below).
Plan on spending 1-2 hours here. They are closed on Sundays.
The Great Northern Carousal is very fun and not one to be missed. I loved that the animals were Montana-focused, including wolves, otters, frogs, and bears along with the horses.
The rides are just a few minutes long, but with that Family-Fun pass you can just keep getting in line and going again and again. We never had to wait for a ride to go without us, even on a Saturday.
I also loved that pregnant mamas are totally welcome, along with babies. M (age 1) was just as thrilled to ride with her Daddy or on a horse of her own (being held by an adult) as her siblings were. There is also a bench and a non-moving horse for the anyone that can’t ride.
Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour
This was really our favorite part of the whole weekend. The two hour tour takes you through the mountains on the Missouri River. Our guide talked the whole time about the history of the area and the views are spectacular.
Also, this is the location of the Mann Gulch fire, for all you wildland fire fighters (and those that appreciate them!) out there. Last summer, Mtn Papa actually had an opportunity to hike into the site of the fire, which was pretty amazing.
For the boat ride, adults are $16, and kids are $10 (ages 5 and under are free).
Throughout the tour, I kept thinking how neat it would be to have our own private boat and camp at Coulter Campground. It’s FREE and in great shape, but only accessible by boat or a really, really long hike. There is also a trail connecting the campground to the Meriwether Picnic area, just a mile away.
Finally, during the height of the summer, the boat tours are happening every hour. I was told that some people will take a morning boat, and when the tour stops for a bathroom/leg-stretching break, hang out and just wait for a boat later in the day to bring them back home. We didn’t do that, but it sounds like a great idea!
Pack extra clothing in case the weather changes and water/snacks if you’re kids won’t make the two hours without them (like ours!)
I was pretty sure our kids would think these gardens were very boring, but it ended up being another highlight of our trip. Tizer Gardens is located between Boulder Hot Springs (see below) and Helena. A hobby that sort of got out of control (in an amazing way!) by passionate owners Richard and Belva, the 6 acres are stunning AND interactive. Tizer gardens is officially a Botanic Garden and Arboretum, the only one in western Montana. We had a chance to talk with the couple and were treated with just a few of the stories of healing and peace the gardens have brought to literally thousands.
We packed a lunch and enjoyed it on one of the available picnic tables before walking the trails. Not only are the flowers and plants amazing, but all the little treasures along the way that make it special and unique each year.
The kids loved the Kids Area with fairy houses/villages, swings, a huge mirror, trolls and gnomes. There’s also a great sandbox and a living tipi and fort to play in.
Tizer Gardens is also a test garden for high altitude plants and hosts an incredible nursery. We never did make it across the street to those areas, but plan to visit again to do just that.
Unfortunately we were just one weekend before their popular annual “Fairy Festival” when the gardens come alive with the magic and joys of an abundance of forest creatures, crafts and beauty. Our kids think it will be worth going back for some day.
Boulder Hot Springs
This is an incredible place to experience and stay a night. We were delighted with the history of the building, which is in a constant state of renovation after years of being neglected. Anne Wilson Schaef purchased the resort in the early 1990s and has spent the last 27 years making it beautiful again. The renovations are slow, but gorgeous, and certainly a labor of love.
We stayed in the Celebration Suite, which is the largest single-room option for families. With bigger kids, it really does make sense to get two rooms (some of which are adjoining). We were a bit cramped, but it totally worked for our family for the night. Note: The rooms do get warm at night in the heat of the summer, but they’re incredibly cozy in the winter!
The breakfast the next morning was AMAZING. The staff is exceptional and the food was punctual and the best breakfast we had had in a long time. The cook even made special waffles for the kids and treated us adults to eggs benedict. The resort as a whole is working to be as green and sustainable as possible. They have a garden and chickens and strive to serve from those sources as much as possible.
The pools are split by gender, but we swam in the co-ed outdoor pool which is the best temperature and atmosphere for families. Life jackets and pool toys are also available for borrowing.
Finally, plan on exploring and hiking around the resort on the many trails. The Peace Valley (named by the Early People because they felt everyone should be able to come and benefit from the healing potential of the mineral waters), is beautiful and definitely peaceful.
Hiking and biking trails are all over Helena. Be sure to check out our recommendations in the show notes and our thoughts on the Hike Like a Woman podcast! It’s a fun conversation with my favorite blogging buddy and totally worth subscribing to!
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